August 26, 2008

Tropical Storm Fay an Untidy Visitor It Blows Things Around and Leaves Limbs, Furniture and Plenty of Extra Water.


As Tropical Storm Fay's powerful wind and waves plowed ashore along St. Johns County's coast, some people dared to frolic in the surf and others finally got official permission to try to save their Vilano Beach homes from more blasts of beach erosion.

Along Florida A1A, from Ponte Vedra to Vilano Beach, the road was flooded in areas and covered with tree limbs and palm fronds. Some mailboxes had blown off of their posts and a few pieces of deck furniture dotted the shoulders of the road.

When the storm churned northward Wednesday, some people headed to the beach at Mickler's Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach.

In between bands of rain, they watched the storm's huge, crashing waves. Some snapped pictures to remember the scene. By Thursday, especially as high tide arrived about noon, such ventures became more daunting.

On Thursday afternoon, many of the heavily traveled roads in Ponte Vedra Beach, including Solana and Corona roads and Ponte Vedra and Roscoe boulevards, were covered with debris from the storm. Police and road crews were out clearing tree limbs and leaves from the roads.

In other areas, retention ponds were overflowing onto the streets. In the Nocatee development, many recently planted trees were blown over, especially on the south side of the Nocatee Parkway.

Meanwhile, under the storm's threat, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials gave residents permits to protect their homes from beach erosion.

Martha Thomas, who owns a home in Vilano Beach, had been working since April to get a permit to build a temporary wall to protect her home from beach erosion. She has worked with engineers and driven to Tallahassee for meetings with DEP officials, but she still didn't have a permit Tuesday afternoon, when Fay was scheduled to make landfall in St. Augustine. That's when Thomas started calling officials including Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R- Fla.

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thomas said the DEP issued her a permit to build a temporary wall; then she started waiting for the storm to let up to do so.

But her neighbors don't yet have permission to build their walls. Two doors down from Thomas, Debbie Stokes said she doesn't have permission to do anything at her mother's home, even replace deteriorated sand bags. The foundation on her mother's home is already exposed from previous beach erosion and now all she can do is wait out the storm and see what happens.

"The sand bags are starting to break down, you can put your fingers through the holes," Stokes said. "Now all we can do is hurry up and wait."

On Thursday morning, about an hour before high tide, the waves were crashing up and over the sand bags, smashing against the foundation of Stokes' home.

County Engineer Press Tompkins, who was there surveying the situation, said the waves were 3 to 4 feet higher than they were on Wednesday.

"It's much worse today," Tompkins said. The wind was also gusting about 50 mph.

In April, when Thomas and her neighbors lost 10 feet of dune from erosion, she contacted Mica to see if he could help he get a permit to build a temporary seawall to save her remaining dune. Mica said he spoke with DEP officials and that the five Vilano Beach homeowners whose homes were in jeopardy would be given permits to build permanent seawalls.

The homeowners are all willing to pay for the seawalls or bulkheads to protect their homes. Some have already paid thousands of dollars for engineering studies and sand bags.

With Mica's blessing, the homeowners thought their problems were solved, but since he made the announcement in April, the process has been delayed for four months and the homeowners haven't been able to do anything to stop the erosion expect to stack up sand bags on their dunes. The sand bags are guaranteed to last only about 90 days and they are deteriorating.

Tuesday morning, before Thomas started calling state officials, she said she thought about simply putting up a wall without permission and paying the DEP fines so she could stop the erosion.

"I have followed the laws since I was 7 years old, but I thought about doing this anyway to save my home," Thomas said.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Jake Latta, 7, his sister Emily, 9, and cousin Jacob Jerris, 7, jumped in and out of the water at the tide line at Mickler's Landing , squealing with joy as they dared the waves crashing at their feet.

"It's interesting to see people coming to check it out, the hurricane action or tropical storm or whatever it is right now," said Carolyn Sehmer of Ponte Vedra Beach.

As people trotted over the boardwalk to the beach, a red flag warned of high hazard and high surf, but swimming was permitted and a lifeguard was patrolling the beach in a truck.

"I was hoping to surf, but it's a little too rough," said Jason Steele of Ponte Vedra Beach. "Hopefully in a couple of days it could get good."

Sehmer said her family stocked up on water, ice, batteries, potato chips, pickles and movies for their battery powered DVD players.

"We've got six hours of movie time if the electricity goes out," she said.Christina Abel can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6319.Maggie FitzRoy can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6320.

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